Thursday, January 29, 2015

GM and Player Advice About GM Burnout

So awhile ago I discussed the differences between burnout and GM's block over here and defined a number of burn out causes over here, but I never ended up going over what a player or Game Master can do to prevent or reduce it.  Today, we'll look at exactly that.  Naturally my list isn't the Be All and End All of burnout prevention.  It is based on my opinions, biases and assumptions, so feel free to chime in with your own ideas.

This article focuses on those who are either teetering on the edge of burnout or who are currently struggling with burnout so it's not going to address player needs.   The GM is presumed to have expended all the effort they can at this point on Tasks With No End (i.e. adventure planning) so simply improving their technique in order to get a better response from their players isn't a viable option at this stage.

Lack of Work.
This can become a problem in comedic games where the rules are either simple (i.e. World of Darkness dungeon crawl) or the GM is expected to be a largely invisible force who sits back and occasionally administrates actions.  It can also be a problem if the players desire a romp through the pages of a bestiary in a simple dungeon while the GM wants to create clues, props and rich locations.  In short, the GM's boredom is driving their burn out.  My best recommendation here would be GM honesty while appealing to player consciences (and desire for further games) with a request to occasionally run one shot games that are more complicated.  Alternatively, the players could always recommend such an occasional adventure and put a lot of effort into taking it seriously even if they normally prefer Beer and Popcorn games.  A few sessions a year to the GM's preference can do wonders and the players may even find they look a few elements of a more complicated game - even if they are turned toward comedic effect.

Tasks With No End.
There's a lot of nitty gritty details that must be done by every GM.  There are descriptions, locations, pre-reading likely rules, running characters and keeping the players updated on the plot when they forget details between the sessions.  It's a good idea for the GM to look at tasks that could be handed off and do so to a player ... or better yet, for a player to offer to help.  At the one extreme, players could keep their own notes, level their own characters, track their own experience, manage their own handouts, sharpen their own pencils, and take turns with the dishes rather than relying on the GM's generosity.  At the other extreme where the GM simply runs really high effort games, it may be a good idea to either spread out the sessions so you have more time or have a few simpler sessions in between more complicated "Key" adventures.  On the plus side, people can be habituated to anything so if you go from a regular session to one with no holds barred, they'll be more likely to notice.

Impossible Tasks.
Some GMs also sometimes set themselves up to do massive undertakings - running 30 player LARPs single-handedly, running five campaigns a week which rely on pre-planning, or even doing both simultaneously!   If it's an impossible task, acknowledge it.  You have a long life to live.  Figure out what you want to do and pare down from there.  You won't do anyone any good if you cut five campaigns midway through.  Of course, if you could take that advice you probably wouldn't need to be reading this so I'll turn to the players instead and recommend that you do everything in your power to make things simpler for them and show your appreciation.  Few games require the players to do anything between sessions so it shouldn't be too much to ask that players do what was suggested in the above paragraph and maybe also bake the occasional snacks or offer to fetch the GM a drink when they get their own.

Problem Players.
Many GMs take on a player's problems as their own personal responsibility to solve. They convince themselves that they can do what highly paid and trained managers and consultants can't do to their paid employees ... change them to suit the role at hand.  A GM is not a trained psychologist and it's unfair on yourself to think that you are somehow a change guru.  Also remember that issues your players bring to the table may only be a problem for you, your game or your table.  It can be hard but if you are getting burned out by one of your players, you really are best off either politely excusing that player from your table or if that's not possible you could end your game for a few months and then create something different and invite other folks to game with you.  If the person in question queries why, you can truthfully state that you didn't think the game would suit their style.  As an example, if they are an avid dungeon crawler and you design a primarily political court game then they should understand even if they're not pleased with it.  If this would leave you with 2 - 3 players, well, there are plenty of games that suit a lower number.

Incompatible Demands.
Sometimes it seems that each and every player wants something different and those differences clash terribly.  Trying to integrate a player who adores gritty realism with someone who prefers thematic supremacy with someone who just wants to feel empowered and hit stuff can be difficult at best. Sometimes it just won't work. You can have an open conversation about the clashes but I've found that isn't effective because the players can't change what they want.  You could declare each session to focus on one player's desires but that often comes off as artificial.  I'd recommend cancelling the game and running a series of one shots that can each focus on a different style or getting a new gaming table.  You might be able to slowly get them all to appreciate each other's styles but if you're on the verge of burn out, you just don't have that much time.

Some Game Masters do all the paperwork, note taking, summarising, experience point tracking, damage tracking, rules tips and character sheet updates for their players. This might be because the players don't want to do it or because the GM thought they'd be helpful and took on too much extra work. If you're feeling burnt out, immediately stop these sundry tasks.  If your players don't note down exp, they probably don't value them highly and will live with the occasional loss due to forgetting to jot them down.  That's fine.  They'll live with it.  What they won't do is appreciate that the campaign ended and you've sworn off gaming for a year because you kept their exp tracks for them.  If you are a player, step up to the plate with this even if you hate keeping records.  Your GM will almost always appreciate it.

GM / Player Supremacy
There seems to be two major camps of roleplayers these days.  There are the old school folks who see the GM as a competitive God who must abide by certain rules while the players show their desperate appreciation.  On the other side you have folks who see the GM as a dutiful and grateful servant who should bow and scrape and be ever so pleased that someone deigned to let them spend a few hours a week preparing to entertain them.  Both sides are wrong.  GMs and players are people and often friends and that should be the focus of any interaction.  Be aware that even if the players understand that neither should be subservient to the others' needs, the Internet might be putting stupid expectations onto the GM (or inflating their ego to dangerous degrees).  Since GMs spend more time (generally) reading advice articles than their players, they're more prone to being messed with by these beliefs.  Besides all of that there is always an inordinate amount of pressure for the GMs to put on a show and though the pressure is normally invigorating, once burn out starts to set in that pressure becomes poison.

Meaninglessness of Achieved Goals
Once you get cynical, it's hard to find meaning in constantly being expected to freely provide entertainment for other people. There's no promotions, no pay rises, and no method of tracking your progress. Are you getting better or worse? Are your efforts all in vain?  Do the players even enjoy the campaign you have slogged over?  Regrettably effort doesn't guarantee reward and many a player will doggedly remain at a table even if they loathe the game simply due to a mixture of habit and friendship.  To make matters worse, burn out and cynicism makes stated goals of "give your players a fantastic time" seem all the more depressing.  What makes the players so special?  Why is no one slaving over me to give me a good time?  Why is the person putting in the most effort getting the least out of it?  These are the circular thoughts that creep up and eat away all good will the GM might feel toward the game and can poison the players' attempts to counteract the burnout with appreciation and congratulations.  Your best bet at this stage is to become a player for several months.*

*Many GMs become impatient with the lack of environmental control, lack of creative outlets for game design and lack of constant stimulation which comes with being a player.  In other words, for many GMs it can help counteract their jealousy and cynicism by helping them realise that being a player is not necessarily better but different.

Role Ambiguity.
This is not always a burn out causing problem but when it rears it's head it can be awfully depressing.  It most commonly occurs when your players don't seem to be enjoying the game, when your more exciting ideas frustrate them, or when the players themselves spend much of their time bickering or outright ignoring the game you set up.  Such a dysfunctional table can be the fault of mean-spirited or ignorant players or the fault of the GM themselves.  Sometimes it's just a clash of personalities at the table.  More rarely, the players just like to complain and are perfectly enjoying a campaign that nonetheless makes the GM miserable.  The ambiguity here is what responsibility the GM holds for such behaviours, whether they can (or should) attempt to fix it, and what the best route forward truly is.  I have no idea how to correct this once it crops up as I have spent a year trying to correct a dysfunctional table and had no success despite repeated entreaties to the players themselves.  In the end, it was probably the particular combination of players and expected campaign style that created the problem.

If you have too much to do, you become naturally exhausted by your efforts especially since your efforts at designing a great campaign very rarely translate to success in other areas of your life.  Excel at work and you may get a promotion or better job opportunity.  Excel at your home life and you get a great house and supportive family to spend your life with.  Excel in a campaign and you have a bubble of happiness for a few hours but may lose promotions, damage career options, alienate family and neglect home and garden.  Try to remember to keep all things in moderation and if the rest of your life is starting to back slide, it's worth taking a few weeks or months holiday from your hobby so that you can rescue everything else.  If you've managed to keep up with all of your responsibilities by sacrificing every scrap of Me Time, well, maybe it's time for you to take a break.

Truly Focused Player Advice
Social Support is one of the *biggest* methods of preventing or reducing burnout. This might mean putting up with the GM complaining about player antics and their lot in life (as problematic as that can be). It also means getting the GM to do non-GM-related things with you and the rest of the gaming group ... heading out to a movie, going to the beach, and hanging out with some pizza can all go towards helping the GM feel supported by their player base and comfortable in their company.  You don't want your friend to constantly see you as an effort, do you?  Bonus points if you can get the whole team together for this purpose.

Practical Support can also tie into this. This might mean providing the GM with a nice food treat, transport to the game site (if necessary), and purchasing and loaning game books at the table (to show you care and are willing to invest as they do).  Considering that many systems live and breathe with their supplements and that players love to use those supplements, purchasing one of said supplements is a really nice thing to do.  Bonus points if you literally give that supplement to your GM.  Yes, we're all poor but GMs aren't generally more wealthy than anyone else and it can really grate if too much of their own wealth goes into the game.  If you can't afford a full book, a module they would like to run or a game aid like an initiative tracking table or critical hit deck can work wonders.  Bonus BONUS points if you wrap it in bubble wrap for extra stress relief!

Game Support can target the actual irritants if the GM has real reason to get fed up with the game. This could mean tilting the game towards the GM's preferred genre (i.e. let your character get scared in that odd horror scene the GM loves; roleplay your heart out at the occasional political scene; really embrace the trap mechanics in their dungeon sprawl).  Or it could mean that you cut down (or increase) the out-of-character joking and chit-chat, especially in terms of listening to the GM.  Whenever your interrupt the GM's game-based descriptions and comments, you sideline half the table and make them repeat themselves.  Once or twice isn't so bad, but these things can become a terrible habit.  Keeping your own notes and actually reading them rather than relying on GM summaries also shows that you enjoy the game and helps cut back on the amount of GM investment.  Obviously, bringing lead pencils and dice and knowing what your sheet can do (or your friend's sheet if they are truly hopeless with the rules) can truly help as well.

Host Support is important because most GMs host the game for logistics purposes - they have all those books and potentially miniatures and hand outs, after all.  However that means they not only have the weighty and effortful GM role, but they also need to clean up and pack up as well.  While some GMs will look askance at the guests doing the dishes (never hurts to ask, though), you could certainly stack any used dishes, put away the dice, and put any trash in the bin.  This is especially wise if the GM isn't one to do housework as parents, spouses and flat mates will all be far more respectful toward your game if you don't leave the place a sty before you leave.  This will reduce the amount of flak your GM gets for running the game due to the extra work involved and you can never know when you could benefit from cashing in those brownie points!

HANDY TIP: Non-gamer spouses and parents, especially those responsible for housework, can generally be won over by sweets and treats as well.  If you bring over baked goods or crisps, remember to share with the rest of the household if you can.  Not only can the good will really help in terms of preventing random game cancellations but it's just a really nice thing to do.  Also make sure that you acknowledge said spouse / parents with a smile when you come into their home.  While not a common bad habit among players, guests who scuttle around and avoid eye contact tend to make people nervous.

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